Akin to life, professional sport comes with its fair share of moral infringements. Despite having all the credentials and ticking all the boxes, sportspersons failing to earn the public’s seal of approval isn’t the rarest of sights. Sure public felicitation is what every player yearns to taste but little does it’s deprivation inflict a dent on their legacies.
For skills know no shackles and achievements do not get forcefully plunged into abyss. Michael John Clarke was such a prodigy of leviathan proportions who reached heights most cricketers would dream of but quite couldn’t win everyone over.
Having been born and raised in Liverpool, New South Wales, Michael Clarke cultivated his budding batting prowess at his father’s indoor cricket centre. His first-class debut came at a tender age of seventeen against the touring Indian side at the Sydney Cricket Ground in December 1999. He held the prestigious AIS Australian Cricket Academy scholarship in 1999–2000. In 2002, he left his home shores to play for Ramsbottom Cricket Club in English club cricket and soon inscribed his name as the first player to hit a double century in the history of the Lancashire League.
Fast forward two years he was making his test debut against India in the direst of conditions in Bangalore. Anil Kumble and Australia’s big nemesis Harbhajan Singh were wreaking havoc at the Aussie batting lineup. On a pitch that was treated as a kryptonite for many years (and still is) in the Australian set up, Clarke literally danced his way to 151 sending spinners and seamers alike to all corners of the ground. His footwork was lightning fast, shot selections immaculate. He was like a breath of fresh air, a golden boy right there at the centre of the golden era team.
The writing was already there on the walls. Former Australian legends had already whispered that he was a once-in-a-generation cricketer. Since the age of twelve, everyone had told him he would play for Australia. In his first three seasons he was a decent cricketer for New South Wales who hinted at something special. He didn’t have any statement making 1000-run seasons. He never averaged over fifty. But with Clarke, with all his flair and hunger, it was, and had always been, obvious he was an Australian player and so he was hand picked into the monstrous Australian side.
On his return to home soil he showed no signs of slowing down as he jolted his way to 141 against New Zealand at the Gabba thus joining an elite group of players to have scored a century in both their first overseas and home Tests. But Clarke wasn’t completely bereft his flaws. He had his bad days. He hit the ball in the air a lot and had the inclination to lose the patience game and get out just on the brink of a break.
After that initial home series he had a six-Test average of 60.9 with two centuries. But reality soon came plummeting down on his face as he went through a century drought for six games straight and was eventually shown the backdoor.
He was reinstated for the Bangladesh tour in April 2006 and it was not long before he was again back among the runs. At number five he became a key member of the Australian batting line-up.
At the SCG in January 2008 he helped Australia record a mighty victory against India in ways one would have never imagined – with the ball! Being handed the cherry in the dying few minutes of the fifth day of the Test by Ricky Ponting with India cruising their way to a draw with three wickets in hand, Clarke stunned the world picking 3/5 in 1.5 overs, snatching the game from right under their noses.
Following Adam Gilchrist’s retirement in 2008, Clarke was anointed as Ponting’s deputy. The move did not sit well with many considering the fact that he would eventually take the baton from Ponting as the nation’s test captain as is mostly the case. With his Gen-Y lifestyle featuring diamond earrings, expensive cars, fancy tattoos and supermodel girlfriend he was simply not the sort of man that ‘old-timers’ could imagine as their national captain.
But when captaincy did dawn on him in 2011, he embraced it with both hands and took it to a whole new level. He was aggressive, attacking and was never afraid to lose a game whilst attempting to win. His bizarre field placings and bold bowling changes reaped great rewards for Australia. He once chose to declare an innings in the West Indies despite trailing as he thought the overcast conditions would make for a great bowling display and boy was he so correct. Australia dismissed the bewildered West Indies cheaply and chased down the target quite comfortably. As a matter of fact Michael Clarke was far ahead of any other Australian captain from a tactical point of view, perhaps only second to the great Mark Taylor.
Mind you, his sheer genius of captaincy did not come at the expense of his batting; rather it skyrocketed to towering heights. He kicked off his captaincy regime with a test series away to Sri Lanka. He smacked a hundred at Galle, on a dustbowl that was later rated poor by the ICC and won his side the game and the series. Next came South Africa. On a fiery Cape Town pitch that left most batsmen clueless, he amassed 151 coming in at at 40 for 3. The second day saw all parts of all four innings of the test match get played on the same day. Although his side lost the bowling fest of a match, Clarke had made almost 50% of the team’s aggregate.
Australia did win the next Test, and drew the series 1-1 against the then number one side followed by a home draw against New Zealand.
Then came the mega home series against India where Clarke went full on super saiyan as he passed one milestone after another en route to an astute knock of 329*. It was a knock of mesmerizing stroke plays, impeccable timing and an exhibition of absolute dominance. The SCG crowd rose to their feet in applause. It was respect. It was an embrace. It was love.
Clarke followed up his triple ton with a double in the next match and added two more in the next home summer against South Africa.
His next big assignment was the home Ashes where he charged the Aussies to a sweet revenge in the form of a 5-0 drubbing.
But the climax of his gargantuan qualities of batsmanship came against South Africa in 2014. Having decimated England, his were on a mission to regain the throne of the number one test team were up next, and it was in Cape Town that Clarke did his best work. Australia were locked 1-1 against the mighty Proteas. Australia won the toss and batted. With conditions as bouncy as it could get and with Morne Morkel firing on all cylinders things were not looking good for the tourists.
In the 41st over Morkel started bowling short to Clarke. In that over, he hit Michael Clarke in the ribs. In the forty-third over he hit him on the arm. The 45th over he hit him on the head, hand and in the gut. The hit on the arm apparently broke Clarke’s arm. Refusing to show any pain or discomfort, Clarke battled his way to an unbeaten 161 in 430 minutes with a broken arm. Long story short he carried a tired team to a Test win, a series win, and they beat the world’s No. 1 team to take that crown themselves.
But perhaps the most awe-inspiring moment of his leadership came in 2014 when Australian cricket was struck by its biggest ever tragedy. Phil Hughes was struck a fatal blow while at the crease in a Shield match at the SCG and succumbed to land of no returns after a short battle in the ICU.
As the entire nation struggled hard to come to terms with what transpired, Michael Clarke emerged as a pharos of strength with his heartwarming eulogy. He then risked his already injured body by forcing himself to play in the Adelaide test as a tribute to his little brother. He battled hard with obvious signs of uneasiness until his back snapped and he was forced to retire hurt. But Clarke being the stoic leader came back again and completed his hundred. There was no jump as he reached the hundred, no big celebrations. Just a slow walk to the part of the Adelaide turf that read “408” and a poignant look to the skies and perhaps the shedding of a few tears.
On the eve of the 2015 WC Final, he announced that he would retire after the grand event and did in style – with the golden trophy held high in hands and the man of the final medal around his neck.
Clarke stood in cricket’s coliseum as conquering hero. He had conquered the world, and the very MCG that booed him were forced to dip their leads in awe.
Michael Clarke was perhaps cricket’s most misunderstood persona. He liked styling his hair, expensive cars and wore the latest fashions. But people acted as if he did all that at the expense of his game as if the two couldn’t go together. If his results with the willow in hand and the decisions he made as the skipper were the only markers of his greatness, he was in every sense of the word an Australian cricket legend.